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Last week, video surfaced of Carbondale police officers breaking up a party. A few extremely brief c
Chris Wissmann

Last week, video surfaced of Carbondale police officers breaking up a party. A few extremely brief clips showed the police using force against or turning pepper spray on two people who were filming them.

The incident raises numerous issues.

First of all, house parties— as most people understand the term, anyway— are against city ordinance in Carbondale. It’s one thing to have friends over for drinks, food, music, and games. It’s another to open a residence to the public. It’s not legal to serve alcohol for money, or to allow underage guests to consume alcohol. Gatherings cannot disturb neighbors or violate the city’s noise ordinance, which the city council revised in April— parties cannot be audible beyond fifty feet from the property line during the day or twenty-five feet at night.

According to police, attendance at the party grew to as many as one-thousand people. Clearly, the party became open to the public and the hosts could not responsibly oversee who was drinking. No gathering of one-thousand persons, or even a tenth of that, could fail to violate the noise ordinance. Police had a responsibility to disperse the crowd before the party flew further out of control.

What happened next is unclear, and so far the publicly available videos don’t necessarily resolve arguments about the facts.

A city of Carbondale press release states that police issued twenty-seven citations, almost all for public or underage possession/consumption of alcohol. Three, however, were for resisting a peace officer, and after effecting one arrest, the press release states that people in the crowd began throwing bottles and cans at the police. The police say they then responded with pepper spray.

An eyewitness at the party disputed the official version of events on a social-media page, saying that the crowd’s actions only turned ugly after the police retaliated against citizens for lawfully recording them.

Citizens do have a right to record the police in the performance of their official duties, but that right is not absolute.

When given a lawful order to disperse, citizens cannot hang around and record or they risk arrest. A large crowd such as at the party in question, however, would have a hard time clearly hearing that message. Alcohol could certainly interfere with reception, and perhaps embolden the people who heard it to disobey. In any event, available video doesn’t confirm if or how such an order was delivered.

Recording cannot interfere with the performance of police duties, nor can it endanger anyone.

One video shows the police having subdued a man on the ground— then another man lunges forward to get closeup video. An officer forces the man coming in with the camera away from the scene.

Absent an order to disperse, I would argue that the man had the right to record the officers— but from a safe distance. Going so close to the action could  have interfered with the ability of the police to safely arrest the suspect. It could endanger not only the police and the person they arrested, but also the man with the camera.

The video, however, doesn’t make clear whether the police used appropriate or excessive force in moving the person away.

Another video of an arrest in progress is less ambiguous. To keep the crowd back, an officer pirouettes, sending a stream of pepper spray in a circle. Then he blasts the man making the recording with pepper spray. Another recording of the same incident shows the man standing at what appears to be at a reasonably safe distance while he’s recording the police officer who hits him with pepper spray.

Absent a clear order to disperse, the use of pepper spray in this instance appears unnecessary, excessive, and an unconstitutional interference with the man’s right to record. That’s even within the context of beer cans and bottles coming at the police— the public should empathize with any edginess that outnumbered officers may have felt under the circumstances, but police might have used force, if necessary, to subdue and arrest their assailants, not those who filmed them. Had they done so, the video would have shown officers acting appropriately toward violent drunks who would have generated absolutely no sympathy from the public for what came next. Instead, an apparently misdirected police overreaction has resulted in justified public anger.

Where to go from this mess? Carbondale can’t be the only community in the state trying to come to terms with how and when citizens can record the police, a right only recently recognized by Illinois law. To some extent, it’s going to be a judgment call— in some situations, ten feet is sufficient distance, for example, while in others that’s not nearly enough. But until courts issue definitive clarifications, the city of Carbondale, through the Jackson County States Attorney, might ask the state Attorney General for advisory guidelines— though a response could take years and might not prove helpful.

In the meantime, the city’s Human Relations Commission might work with the Illinois Municipal League, the Fraternal Order of Police, and the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union to propose model policies and training curricula for how the Carbondale Police Department and other law-enforcement agencies should handle video recording by the public.


More immediately, citizens have several venues through which to present formal complaints about how police acted in this or other situations— and if they feel police have mistreated someone, they have a responsibility to do so. The most appropriate place to start is with the compliant form or email link at <http://CarbondalePolice.com>. There, by the way, citizens can also offer commendations for police who do their jobs well.